Thursday, November 17, 2016

Snowbound (1948)

“You’re young, Mr. Blair. you’ve got your life ahead of you... I hope. Cultivate a little less curiosity.”

Scripted by David Evans and Keith Campbell from the novel The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes, this film features some expressive cinematography by Stephen Dade, appropriately scored by Cedric Thorpe Davis, whose most notable films today are probably Kidnapped and Rob Roy: the Highland Rogue, two of Walt Disney’s London-produced live action features. This film is edited by James Needs (later a Hammer studios regular), and directed by David MacDonald, who began his film career working for Cecil B. DeMille as a production assistant. in 1929.

The cast is the real reason to come to this production, which as a convoluted and occasionally muddled plot as the audience is frequently lost trying to keep track of who is doing what to whom and why. The actors here are seldom less than entertaining, even when the script gives them difficult material to work from.

We are first introduced to our lead character, Neil Blair (Dennis Price) on the set of a movie studio, where he is working as an extra. He is spotted by the director, Derek Engels (The great Robert Newton), who was his former officer during the war (WWII, that is). He picks him out for a special project of his own, but gives him only the most vague of instructions on what is expected of him - go to a cozy ski lodge (referred to in the film as a hut, but quite a bit more expansive than one might think of as such) in the alps, and watch certain people who he finds there. Engels also gives Blair a photograph of a woman he is to keep an eye out for, and a name to go with it - Carla Rometta (Mila Parely).

Blair’s cover story is that he is to pose as a script writer, off on assignment to capture local color, and is accompanied on the excursion by a cameraman named Joe Wesson (Stanley Holloway), who is to know nothing of his real reasons for the trip (as if Blair has any real idea himself!). The only additional clues Engels gives Blair is that the mission is based on a lead Engels picked up while he was working for British intelligence during the war. This is supposed to serve as a set-up for the plot, but with such vague information, the direction of the story seems more unfocused than mysterious.
At the lodge, Blair soon encounters a disparate cast of variously menacing and peculiar characters. There is Valdini (Marcel Dalio), an overly-friendly Italian who accompanies Carla, who is currently posing as a Countess. The innkeepers at the lodge (Willy Fueter & Catherina Ferraz) are oddly reticent to receive any guests, but are pursuaded by Valdini to give them two of the several available empty rooms.

Each of these residents of projects mysterious private motives and there is much skulking and poking about the lodge and the surrounding slopes. Here we see one of the more unique aspects of the film, particularly in regard to its subversion of the typical noir tropes of darkness and shadows. Though there are plenty of these elements at play in the visuals during the scenes inside the lodge, it is starkly contrasted by the bright, white open spaces and clear bright snow-covered ski slopes where the lodgers spend their time when not nosing about for the as-yet unnamed treasure they seek. Both those dark, shadowy places and the clean quiet mountains turn out to be equally treacherous.

Two more guests arrive after this and are given a similar welcome. First is the secretive Greek visitor, Karamikos (Herbert Lom), who acts friendly enough, but whose words and actions carry an ominous undercurrent of danger. His interactions with the other guests exudes a sly, casually evil confidence in his own superior intellect and abilities. The last guest to join the party is a man calling himself Gilbert Mayne (Guy Middleton), who mostly keeps to himself and lurks in shadows when no one is looking. He reacts violently to cameras, for unknown reasons unwilling to allow his picture to be taken.

Off on a ski run together, Mayne leads Blair off a steep embankment and leaves him for dead there. He denies knowledge of Blair’s whereabouts on his return to the cottage, but “Countess” Carla suspects something is wrong, and calls for a search party to rescue him. Their relationship is not deeply enough established by the filmmakers, but the implication here is supposed to be that they have fallen for one another.

Though Blair’s disappearance is little more than a plot detoir and does little to move the story forward, the torch-lit search sequence at least provides some unique visuals. He is brought back to the hut, sore, exhausted, cold, but otherwise still enough alive to stay in the lodge and conveniently not require hospitalization.

After a brief flashback scene explaining how the gold came to be here (narrated by Karamikos/Von Kellerman) the final battle for the treasure begins with a flurry of back stabbings, shootings, and gun-play all coming to a boil at once. After a brief and slightly out-of-tone comic interruption by Wesson, the tense drama continues. bullets fly, glasses smash, and, while Kellerman forces a dig in the cellar at gunpoint, a fire starts in lodge. only Blair, Wesson, and Carla escape the blaze, and, as they watch the flames glow against the white, silent mountains they vow to leave the gold wherever is was hidden. This abrupt ending to a plot that never really found its footing is at least in keeping with the despair and dark bitter mood of the noir era, but one finds it difficult to watch this film and particularly this excellent cast, and, like the characters at the finale bemoaning their lost treasure, not think of what could have been.

His return creates a precarious tension among the lodgers, as accusations are thrown about and distrust is sown among these familiar strangers who not exactly friendly when they started out. Adding to the conflict is the appearance at last of Engels, who has decided it is time to check up on his “writer” in person and see how things are working out for his assignment. Just as he shows up, a storm begins to blow over, isolating them all together in the lodge for the night, forcing a final stand-off between the various treasure-seekers.

As they sit around eating together, Engel begins to unmask each of the guests. The Countess and Validini are the ones who, during the war, had found out from a soldier about a secret nazi gold shipment and plotted to steal it. Mayne is not the English ex-soldier he claims to be, but a fortune-hunting partner in her scheme, living under a stolen identity obtained from a dead body. And Karamikos, it seems, is not Greek, but a German, Herr Von Kellerman, a former intelligence rival from the Nazi army, come to claim the Nazi gold that was hidden somewhere on the property where the lodge is situated. This, then, is the great reveal, the great Maltese Falcon MacGuffin Dingus they are all after.

** out of 5

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